by Franklyn Calle
On a humid summer day in Philadelphia, Isiah Thomas sat in the stands with assistant Anthony Anderson, as he took part in his first live recruiting period. The new Florida International University head coach was without a doubt the most notable individual in the building, grabbing much of the crowd’s attention at the Reebok All-American Camp. For a few minutes, he was the main attraction, despite the fact that two games were being played simultaneously with some of the nation’s top prospects on the floor. But the crowd seemed to be more drawn into witnessing one of the greatest point guards to ever play the game start his collegiate coaching career right before their eyes. We all have sort of gotten accustomed to seeing Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Bill Self, Jay Wright, Billy Donovan and all the other great college coaches in gymnasiums during the summer, scouting for the best talent out there. The average spectator wasn’t the only one diverted by the arrival of the Hall of Famer as even college coaches contemplated the unconventional panorama, including an assistant coach from a Big Ten Conference school sitting beside me who turned to me and said, “there goes my idol going growing up.” But soon our eyes will have to get acquainted to seeing Thomas out there in the recruiting trail, as it is part of the routine of being a college coach.
Thomas will now be attempting to leave memories of his NBA coaching days behind (especially his tenure with the Knicks) and look for a fresh new start in Miami. The task won’t be easy, as he will have to find a way to produce a winning program while also striving to make fans and the media forget about what happen in New York, on and off the court. But Thomas is hardly the first coach to go from the NBA to the collegiate level with a bad taste in his mouth. Tim Floyd, Rick Pitino and John Calipari are prime examples of coaches who have been able to find success in the NCAA after substandard years in the League.
Floyd was hired by the Chicago Bulls in the summer of 1998, same-off season when all the key players of the Bulls championship years parted ways. The team went 13-37 his first season, which was stalled for a while due to the lockout. The next season they went 17-65, followed by the 2000-01 season in which the team finished two games worst with a 15-67 record. Floyd would resign on Christmas Eve of that same year in the midst of disputes with players and the front office, after a 4-21 start, culminating a three-and-a-half year stint with Chicago and a 29-190 overall record. Floyd got a second shot in the 2003-04 season, this time with the New Orleans Hornets. He led them into the Playoffs after a 41-41 regular season, only to get bumped out by the Miami Heat in the first round. The organization dismissed Floyd after the season, ending his NBA head coaching career with a 93-235 overall record. In January of 2005, the University of Southern California hired Floyd and it didn’t take him long to start making some noise. The Trojans finished the 2006-07 season with a 25-12 record, marking the most wins in school history and taking them to the NCAA Sweet 16 for only the second time in almost 30 years. He also was able to attract some of the top prospects in America on consecutive years, in O.J. Mayo and Demar DeRozan, both of whom are currently in the NBA after one year in college.
Pitino’s NBA coaching career was also not the prettiest. After a nice start with the NY Knicks in the late 80’s, finishing second in the Atlantic division with a 38-44 record in his first season as a NBA head coach and then taking the team to the Eastern Conference semi-finals the following year after winning the division with a 52-30 record, Pitino wasn’t able to find much success when he returned to the NBA with the Boston Celtics in the late 90’s after leading Kentucky to the ’96 and ’97 NCAA Championship games. His Celtics team would finish 6th in the division his first year followed by back-to-back 5th place finishes. After starting the 2000-01 season with a 12-22 record, Pitino resigned as head coach and president of the Celtics. In his 3-plus seasons in Boston, the New York native posted a 102-146 record and ended his NBA coaching career with a 192-220 record. Within months, Pitino found a new home at the University of Louisville where he still coaches today. He would quickly pick up from where he left off at Lexington when in charge of the Kentucky Wildcats program in the early 90’s. In 2005, Pitino led the Cardinals to there first Final Four appearance in almost 20 years. As of today, the program continues to be a force in the Big East Conference as well as attracts some of the best talent in the country.
John Calipari and his tenure as a NBA head coach also didn’t go too well. In his first season with the New Jersey Nets, his team finished with a 26-56 record. The following season, the Nets would improve and make the playoffs after a 43-39 regular season, but their time in the postseason was cut off real short as they were swept by the Bulls. The team was not able to transcend from their previous year and Calipari was fired after a 3-17 start to the 1998-99 season. In 2000, the University of Memphis hired Calipari as their new head coach, embarking on what would turn out to be as one of the best moves in school history. In only his second year at the school, Calipari led the Tigers to a NIT Championship. The following season, Memphis would make the NCAA tournament on consecutive years. In 2006, the Tigers appeared in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1992 after a 33-4 season. That same year marked the first of four consecutive years in which Memphis would finish with 33 or more wins. The 2007-08 team went 38-2 and reaped a trip to the NCAA National Championship game, led by Derrick Rose. Coach Calipari made the University of Memphis a national powerhouse, attracting some of the best players in nation while having every prospect consider it as an option. In his nine years with the program, Calipari posted a 252-69 record, going 137-14 in his final four while 61-1 in conference play.
So here stands Isiah Thomas trying to join that list. Although his coaching numbers aren’t quite admirable, his playing days without any doubt were. For some of the young people who only know about his controversial days with the Knicks and not so much about his numbers as a player, it goes as follows: 1982 NBA Rookie of the Year, twelve-time NBA All-Star, two-time NBA All-Star MVP, three-time All-NBA 1st Team, two-time All-NBA second team, two-time NBA Champion, 1990 NBA Finals MVP. He is also the Pistons’ all-time leader in scoring with 18,822 points (19.2 ppg), in assists with 9,061 (9.3 apg), in steals with 1, 861 (1.9 spg) and games played with 979 for his career. He ranks ninth and fifth in NBA history, in steals and assists respectively.
But his post-playing days haven’t been so nifty. After taking over the Indiana Pacers for Larry Bird in 2000, Thomas led the team to the playoffs in his three seasons with the organization but was never able to win a series. Bird then returned to the Pacers and replaced Thomas with Rick Carlisle. But it’s his time in New York that has caused much of the blemish in his post-playing career. Aside from going 56-108 in his two seasons at the helm with the Knicks, a sexually harassment lawsuit against him and Madison Square Garden tarnished his career.
Zeke now has the opportunity for a fresh start at FIU and most importantly a shot at winning back the fans as well as his reputation. Between games I was able to catch up with the Hall of Famer and ask him a couple of questions as he prepared to watch the new group of players that were about to take the floor. The one thing that became very clear to me is that he is very optimistic about his new gig and sees it as a big opportunity. He quickly described the situation as a positive one, using the word “excited,” referring to his new job at Florida International.
“Basketball is basketball at any level. The Xs and Os are the Xs and Os,” said Thomas with a smile when I asked about the transition he will have to make from coaching at the NBA level to now at the collegiate level. “But just the learning of the rules, the managing of the game, those are the things that will come into play.”
And the ever-controlling NCAA rules will also be an adjustment and adaption that he will have to commit to. “The NCAA rules are the biggest thing I’m trying to understand right now,” Thomas said. “The difference between the state and private university rules.”
Thomas has made it clear about how he wants to assemble the program and reiterated it once again to me. “The first thing we want to do is be a good defensive team. That’s what we will base our foundation on, defense. We will build from there,” Thomas explains.
Florida International went 13-20 last season, exhibiting its third 20-loss season in last four years. The program has only been to the NCAA Tournament one time in its history; under head coach Bob Weltlich in 1995. Yet the former member of the Pistons Bad Boys years believes that he can help lead the Golden Panthers into becoming a powerhouse in the Sun Belt Conference and a place where all recruits will consider suiting up for.
“At the end of the day, we want to be known as a top program. Whenever kids are thinking about choosing a college or when kids are thinking about going to the next level in playing in the NBA, we hope this will be a place they will consider,” says Thomas.
Some may think that since Zeke is a legendary former NBA player, it shouldn’t be too hard to get players to play for him and win, but if you ask him, communication is the key.
“You just gotta be able to communicate. That’s the biggest difference. Whether you are out on the floor communicating with your teammates or whether you are coaching and communicating to your team, you just gotta be able to articulate your thoughts and get the team to implement your thoughts,” Thomas said.
Thomas has started on the right direction as he announced that he would be donating his first year salary to the school. While in Philly, he also picked up a recruit as he received a verbal commitment from Chris Coleman. The 6-10 center of Mount Zion Christian Academy in North Carolina picked FIU over high-major schools such as Connecticut, West Virginia, Syracuse and Virginia Tech among others.
Just as it always was in his playing days, the ball is in Thomas’ hands again. Where does he go and what does he do with it will be up to him. But just as in basketball as it is in life, everyone deserves a second shot.